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CHRISTIANITY
from issue no. 11 - 2011

Christmas: a grateful dependence on Christ


The message for the readers of 30Days of His Grace Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury


by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams


Archbishop Rowan Williams shows Pope Benedict XVI the illuminated manuscript of the Tree of Jesse, in the Lambeth Bible, at the end of their meeting at Lambeth Palace, London, 17 September 2010 [© Osservatore Romano]

Archbishop Rowan Williams shows Pope Benedict XVI the illuminated manuscript of the Tree of Jesse, in the Lambeth Bible, at the end of their meeting at Lambeth Palace, London, 17 September 2010 [© Osservatore Romano]

 

Today there is a lot of talk about how many people prefer ‘spirituality’ to ‘religion’. And most of us can understand some of what this attitude means. It represents a revolt against any idea that we human beings are healed or transfigured only by adhering to the life of an institution and a set of declarations or theories.

But the danger here is of reducing faith to a series of experiences that make us feel better, so that there is no universal truth, no saving revolution once and for all in human life, only a succession of ‘spiritual’ experiments, enlarging our sensitivity but not bringing us into a new world. Somehow we need a language that will take us beyond the unhelpful polarisation between these two terms – a language of new creation, and a practice of new life in new relationship.

It is in this sense that to speak truthfully of the Church is to go beyond both religion and spirituality. The Church is not here to be a provider of wonderful experiences (so that you can abandon it when the experiences run out); nor is the Church simply an institution with rules and agreed positions. The Church is the state of being identified with Jesus Christ, that is given the gift of being free to pray his prayer and share his life, to breathe his breath.

And we celebrate Christmas because this new state of life depends absolutely and uniquely on the fact that a child was born two thousand years ago in the Middle East. It does not depend on successfully developing new techniques to help us feel better; nor does it depend on a set of theorems being revealed. It begins with a helpless, wordless baby; because it is in relation to that fragile human life that every human being will ultimately find their true destiny.

Compared with either the attractions of exciting experiences or the security of unshakeable positions, this may itself look rather fragile. Yet because it locates the true source of life and hope right outside the world of human effort and organisation, it challenges us to trust a foundation that is, beyond all compare, more stable and unchanging – the act and promise of God, the Word of God which makes the divine life live in the life of creation and above all, in the life of this newborn child.

The contrast between on the one hand the life of relationship in the communion of Christ’s Body and, on the other, the world of both ‘spirituality’ and ‘religion’ was already worked out seventeen hundred years ago by Saint Augustine when he wrote his Confessions. He describes his ‘spiritual’ adventures – first in a heretical organisation with strongly defined dogmas that didn’t welcome any intellectual challenges, then as an expert of meditation and a sort of mysticism. And he tells us, movingly, of the deep frustration he felt, glimpsing from far away the realm of eternal truth and peace.

But, he says, the underlying problem was that in all this he had never really let go of his self-obsession, his pride. ‘I was not yet humble enough to recognize the humble Jesus Christ as my master’, he says. And – in one of the greatest images in the whole of his work, he goes on to speak of how Christ, by coming among us in flesh, holds us back in our confident strides towards discovering the truth by our own efforts. We are suddenly stopped in our tracks ‘as we see at our feet a weak divinity, made weak by sharing the “coat of skins” that we wear. Exhausted, we throw ourselves down upon this fragile divine life – so that when it rises, we too shall rise’ (Confessions VII.18).

Forgetting spiritual aspiration and religious correctness, we are summoned by the Christmas gospel simply to do this: to drop down in our human weariness upon the ground of divine love, divine love made helpless and fragile so that it may get under the skin of our hopeless self-reliance. Thus renewed, against all likelihood and expectation, we rise into the life of grateful dependence on Christ and on one another, into the communion of endless mutual gift.

 

+ Rowan Canterbury

From Lambeth Palace, London Christmas 2011



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